UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) — No. 2 UConn was forced to play the American Athletic Conference Tournament without injured All-American Katie Lou Samuelson and may have become a more complete team as a result.
Napheesa Collier scored 25 points and pulled down 14 rebounds, and the Huskies beat UCF 66-45 Monday night to win their sixth straight league tournament championship.
Freshman Christyn Williams had 13 points and Crystal Dangerfield added 12 for Connecticut (31-2), which improved to 120-0 against AAC opponents since the league was formed in 2013.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who started her fourth straight game since Samuelson suffered a back injury nine days ago, had seven points and 11 rebounds. In three tournament games, the 6-foot-4 freshman scored 34 points, had 32 rebounds and was a defensive force in the lane with seven blocked shots.
“Having Lou out is really hard, but it gave Olivia a chance to prove herself to us and I think she did that this weekend,” said Collier. “She did everything we needed her to and Christyn did the same. As hard as it is, it gave them good minutes and when Lou’s back it will have them even more ready.”
Collier, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, set an AAC record by scoring 85 points during the Huskies three games. The double-double was her 20th this season and the 44th of her UConn career.
Lawriell Wilson scored 12 points off the bench for UCF (26-6), which has won more games than any other team in program history. All-conference guard Kay Kay Wright, who had scored 41 points in UCF’s first two tournament games, was held to just four points, a basket in each half.
The Huskies led 17-9 after a quarter, then outscored UCF 22-6 in the second to lead 39-15 at halftime.
UConn held the Knights to just 35 percent shooting, including five field goals on 26 shots in the first half.
UCF played much better in the second half, outscoring UConn 30-27, but could not bridge the gap.
“We went in the locker room and regrouped,” said UCF senior forward Nyala Shuler, who had five points and eight rebounds. “I think we came out with a lot more energy. We got more comfortable and then we just started having a lot of fun.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the team needed to get out to a fast start and he was worried that UCF’s grinding style might wear out the short-handed Huskies. He said he was proud of how his team and especially his two freshmen responded to the challenge.
“If we can count on those young kids, now when Lou comes back we have a much more complete team,” he said. “We have more options and we have more confidence in ourselves and each other.”
UCF: This was the first time the program has played for a conference championship since losing in the Conference USA finals in 2013. The program’s last conference championship came in 2011, which also was the last time the program made the NCAA Tournament field.
“We wanted to just come in here and play UCF basketball and have fun,” said coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. “Just enjoy this moment, because we have never been here before.”
UConn: UConn improved to 11-0 all-time against UCF. The Huskies won the two regular-season meetings by 36 and 37 points.
UConn won its three games in the tournament by 27, 36 and 21 points after beating AAC opponents by an average of 32 points during the regular season. Auriemma said it has not been as easy as the Huskies made it appear.
“I don’t know that the goal was to go 120-0 when this thing started,” he said. “I think it was just to win games and win championships.
Then you look back and we’re 120-0. It’s a lot. Anybody can have a bad night, I don’t care what anybody says.”
Dangerfield had six assists, giving her 202 for her career and moving her past Renee Montgomery into fourth place on the school’s all-time list. The junior was named Monday as one of five finalists for the 2019 Nancy Lieberman Award, honoring the best point guard in the nation.
SHE’LL BE BACK
Auriemma said there is no doubt in his mind that Samuelson will be ready to play at the start of the NCAA Tournament.
“Every day she is better than the day before,” he said. “I’m expecting her to play and so is she.”
UCF awaits an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
UConn is expected to be named the top seed in the NCAA’s regional in Albany and would open at Gampel Pavilion on campus in Storrs.